Jean, 11, sees the world as it could be if more people brought their communities together
“If you see a problem, fix it.” That’s the simplicity with which humanitarian Orion Jean speaks about his work with actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, over Zoom, from his home in Fort Worth, Tex. Just 11 years old, Jean has been selected from a field of thousands of nominees as TIME’s Kid of the Year for 2021. Jean sees himself as an ambassador for kindness—he jumps in wherever he sees a need, whether it’s collecting and donating 100,000 meals to food insecure families across the country, or getting 500,000 books to kids with none at home. At a time when isolation and division are rampant, Jean sees the world as it could be if more people brought their communities together to help their neediest members.
Jolie, a TIME contributing editor, is an Academy Award–winning actor and special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She recently co-authored the book Know Your Rights and Claim Them, a guide to human rights for young people, with Amnesty International.
ANGELINA JOLIE: I’ve met many different leaders around the world, and one of the things that most people forget is how to explain a simple truth about what matters. That’s why I’m so impressed with you. You really reminded me of that.
ORION JEAN: Thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
AJ: Will you explain the focus of your work and how it came about?
OJ: I’ve always been able to, when I get home school, just watch the news with my parents and find out what’s going on in the world. And when the pandemic began, I saw a lot of things were happening, people were losing their jobs and losing access to food and homes and all of these essential things. And I knew right then that I wanted to do something to help, but the opportunity actually came around when my teacher suggested that I enter into a speech contest. And if I won the prize money that came with the contest, that means I could start a kindness initiative to help these people.
AJ: What is a kindness initiative?
OJ: Well, to me, it can be a number of things. And the one that I started was the race to kindness. The race to kindness is not just a series of events, but also a call to action. It’s a way to get people involved in the community, you know, and when they see something happening now they can go out and do something about it.
AJ: You wrote that kindness is about a choice, which I think is so important. It’s something that’s attainable, that everybody can choose to do right now. How would you suggest someone do that?
OJ: Well, you’re absolutely right, kindness is a choice and while we can’t force others to be kind, we can be kind ourselves and hope to inspire other people. So many people have great ideas, but never act on them. I think it’s all about really caring about the issues that you’re seeing. Someone told me that you have to find something that breaks your heart for you to really get out there and make a difference in that area. And I want others to know that they can start today. If there’s an issue or problem or something that they see that they want to solve, all it takes is really just knowing deep down inside that it’s something you care about, and you can go out and get started.
AJ: I really love that. And you’re right about what breaks your heart. I think when you’re a caring person, you realize there’s so much happening in the world, and then you don’t know where to start or what to do. I think, at the center for me was working with refugees, and that was what broke my heart. So I think you’re exactly right, people can really pay attention to what moves them.
What do your friends think about all of this? Do they join you?
OJ: Well, a lot of them don’t really know much about what I’ve done, but I hope that if they see something on the news and are like, ‘Hey, I know him!’ hopefully that inspires them to know that, hey, a kid like me can go out and really make an impact. It’s not about me, I’m just a vessel to spread kindness and to help others spread kindness in their communities as well.
AJ: It feels very nice to be in your presence. You really do have a gift of sharing this warmth and this kindness. Do you ever feel sometimes overwhelmed or sad when people are unkind or you see cruelty?
OJ: Absolutely. I think that one of the things about being kind is that you perk up when you hear other people being unkind or when you hear about people that aren’t doing the right thing. And it makes you sad inside. And like I said, kindness is a choice, you can’t force anyone else to be kind. You hope that by inspiring other people to spread kindness that they will somehow see it and, you know, change their ways and be more kind in the future.
AJ: It feels better to be kind, doesn’t it? It’s just a nicer way of communicating with each other.
OJ: Yeah, I think that kindness sometimes can just be as easy as not being mean to someone. Not talking about someone behind their back or posting that mean comment on social media. That’s what kindness can be, it can just be as simple as not being cruel to someone.
AJ: That’s great advice. So I know also you’re a reader, and that you also started an initiative around books. Tell me that story.
OJ: Well, I’ve loved books ever since I can remember. I’ve always had a book in my hand waking up, going to bed. And I knew that after the race to 100,000 meals, which was another initiative that I’d done, I knew that I wanted to be able to do something bigger that would reach more people. I’ve always been trying to get my friends to like, you know, ‘Read this book with me!’ or, ‘We’re gonna do like a mini book club,’ or something. But now that I have the platform, I wanted to be able to reach more people, and to me literacy is something that can get you off the ground. It can allow you to eventually get that good job or out of that neighborhood. Or maybe it’s just a way for you to escape from your everyday life, and to read a new story about a new culture or a new person, and find out something that you didn’t know before.
Some kids don’t have access to any books, really. I mean, they live in areas that we call book deserts. And I wanted to—maybe not eliminate them, but—make those areas smaller, or at least get books out to those areas. I wanted to be able to partner with organizations in those communities.
I did not do this by myself, it took a whole team behind me: my parents, my family, all of the generous corporate donors and organizations that we partnered with and strangers that I’ve never even met. They are all donating because they feel compelled to help those in their community.
AJ: Did you meet the beneficiaries of the book drive?
OJ: Unfortunately, that’s one of the parts of the pandemic that was tough. We did have to distribute the books, and a couple times I’ve been able to see kids pick out their own books, and that really put a smile on my face just to see these books put a smile on theirs.
AJ: A lot of adults are sitting around these days thinking, I wish there was better leadership. I know you’ve even written a book on leadership. Do recognize that you might be a leader one day? You already are, at 11. But do you think of your future and what you might want to be?
OJ: I hope that whatever I do, I will be able to be a leader. But one of the reasons I was so excited to write that book is because, from a young age, I told you, I have loved reading. And I’ve always wanted to write my own stories and be an author when I grow up. But just knowing that, with all that I’ve been able to learn, maybe one day I might become a country or world or state leader in whatever career that I may take. I hope that right now I’m able to be a leader and inspire so many other kids to become leaders as well.
AJ: Whatever you choose to be in the future, I have no doubt you will accomplish many things. Do you do anything silly?
OJ: I’m a big reading person. I tried to get into some musical instruments—drums and piano—and you know, playing video games with my friends and just being a kid. Learning to have that balance between all of the efforts that I’ve done and also just taking time to relax and be 11.
AJ: I think a lot of young people who are becoming more active and trying to make change can burn out. And it sounds like your family knows very well how important the balance is.
OJ: Self-care is just as important. You know, you have to practice what you preach. If you want other people to be able to take care of themselves and have all these necessities, then you have to take time for yourself as well, and just every now and then know when to take a break and step back.
AJ: I feel like I’m taking a class from you. You seem so grounded in such an understanding of what is important in life. And it’s really just an honor to meet you.
OJ: The pleasure, believe me, is all mine. I have loved your humanitarian work and your movie work. When did you start your humanitarian efforts?
AJ: Oh, well, I was raised by a mom who was aware of things happening in the world and would talk to me. She was extremely kind, my mom. When I started traveling—I was in a film and it took me to Cambodia where I learned about refugees and landmines—I started to realize how much I didn’t know. I realized that there was a big piece of my education that I was going to have to fill in myself. I asked to go into the field with the UN Refugee Agency and start to bear witness to what was happening in the world, and then decided it was the most important thing I could do with my life.
OJ: Wow. I mean, you’re right, just the thought that not everyone has the same privileges or opportunities that sometimes I have taken for granted. It really struck me just knowing that there are people out there who really do need help, and they don’t have the resources to be living in a big home or with books or toys, or maybe even a meal. Something as simple as a meal could be, you know, not something that’s guaranteed.
AJ: I will say also that, speaking of kindness, the kindest people I’ve met are refugees—people who don’t have anything. I’ve learned a lot about kindness from those people that probably have a lot of reasons to be angry, but they found their grace.
OJ: Totally. It’s so much easier to be kind when your focus is simply on trying to get by, not consumed by all of these other things.
AJ: I think you’re right. When you’re stripped of everything, you know what matters. Maybe one day we’ll go into the field together. I’d really love to join your race to kindness.
OJ: Thank you. I think you are definitely a part of the race. You have been doing it for much longer than I have.
AJ: You’re very kind to say that. Thank you so much for this interview. And congratulations on being named TIME Kid of the Year. You deserve it.
Cover photo: Styling: Ornella Suad; Flannel Shirt: OshKosh B’gosh; Pants: OshKosh B’gosh. Set production by Kristen Dempsey and Michele Knafo.